Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recruited a brigade of women to man checkpoints and carry out security operations as he attempts to free up soldiers in his beleaguered army to fight the rebels.
Dressed in fatigues and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, the female recruits – the “Lionesses for National Defence” – are part of a new paramilitary force. They have already been deployed in Homs, where they have been spotted guarding areas where residents still largely support the regime. Videos from both opposition and pro-government sites purport to show members of the all-female unit in action.
The women are part of the recently formed National Defence Force (NDF), which appears to be a key component of the Syrian state’s counter insurgency strategy. The regime is struggling to gain the upper hand in the street battles that have devastated large areas of the country’s cities and killed thousands of its soldiers. Rebels are holed up in several neighbourhoods of Homs and the capital’s southern suburbs.
Abu Rami, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission in Homs, first saw the female recruits about five days ago at Tadmour Circle on the outskirts of an Alawite area, before another activist returned to film them. The shaky video, which appears to have been filmed secretly, shows around half a dozen armed women guarding a major intersection.
“I was very surprised, it’s the first time we have seen this,” he said. “I think it’s an excuse to make the FSA [Free Syrian Army] kill women and then show the world as propaganda, but anyone with a weapon is a legitimate target.”
He said the women were also seen in the Wadi al-Dahab area, where some 500 recruits are reported to be receiving training at a military base.
In scenes reminiscent of parades by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s female bodyguards, a video uploaded on to a pro-regime YouTube channel at the beginning of the month shows about a hundred women marching in front of a portrait of the president. The NDF, which includes male recruits, is expected to have 10,000 members.
Waleed al-Fares, a Homs-based activist, described the new group as “just the Shabiha with a different name”, referring to the notorious, largely Alawite pro-Assad militias.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims it will also include an elite fighting force trained by Iran. The Islamic Republic, a staunch ally of Damascus, has admitted its Quds Force is helping the Syrian regime in an advisory role.
An NDF Facebook page lists its operations – a post praises its men for supporting the army in “cleansing” the Damascus suburb of Daraya, where it is trying to destroy rebel hideouts. But as well as freeing up the army for military operations, the force gives the regime a psychological boost.
“Assad needs people to be militants at this point,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s not just a matter of operations on the ground and needing more bodies – he also needs society and his community to be mobilised, to keep up morale.”
But as the conflict becomes increasingly multifaceted, some doubt a negotiated settlement can be reached. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the notion was “unimaginable”.
Girl power: The women of war
Though war may traditionally be the preserve of men, history has thrown up its fair share of female warriors, from Boudica, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against the Roman Empire, to Joan of Arc, burnt at the stake at age 19 after leading France to several victories in the Hundred Years’ War.
In World War One, the Soviet Union created the “Women’s Battalion of Death”, made up of around 2,000 recruits who fought the June Offensive against Germany in 1917. Then there was Colonel Gaddafi’s Amazonian Guard – hand-picked bodyguards, all heavily made up and sworn virgins.
Syria’s Lionesses are not currently involved in combat, but the Levant has seen both Christian and Muslim women fighting on the frontline in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.